Tuesday, 19 April 2011

AFED #108: Haute Tension [High Tension, aka Switchblade Romance] (France, 2003); Dir. Alexandre Aja

There's a gimmick that's gained prominence in cinema over the past decade that I find increasingly irksome. It cropped up in La casa muda just last week and here it is again, albeit Haute Tension preempted the Uruguayan film by several years.

Let's call that gimmick EYTYKIW: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong. Now EYTYKIW is a somewhat different creature to the twist ending, which has been with us ever since cavemen began sitting around the fire telling stories. Twist endings are the final snap in a story, a little surprise to muse over afterwards. By contrast EYTYKIW typically comes at some point during the third act and gleefully exposes the artifice of narrative; those logical assumptions we've made while reading or watching a story.

The interesting thing about EYTYKIW is it can be effective without necessarily being that much of a surprise. Anybody with a passing knowledge of old school psycho-thrillers won't have been taken aback by Scorsese's Shutter Island but that doesn't prevent it from being a damn entertaining film.

But the problem arises when filmmakers, in their desperation to be clever or original, play the EYTYKIW card with scant regard to what's gone before. If it undermines the logical consistency of the earlier part of the story without adequate foreshadowing then it's simply cheating and the viewer has every justification in feeling conned.


Haute Tension is for the main part an affectionate (if that's appropriate) homage to seventies American home invasion horrors; grizzly grindhouse classics such as Wes Craven's Last House On the Left. Marie (Cécile de France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) are two college friends who travel to the country home of Alex's parents to spend the weekend studying. It's apparent from the onset that Marie - with close-cropped hair that makes her resemble a butch Jean Seberg - has a crush on Alex, although her friend seems blithely unaware.

That night a van-driving, switchblade-wielding brute breaks into the house, gruesomely slaughters Alex's family, ties her up and kidnaps her. Marie, who managed to hide from the invader, sneaks into the back of the van with her and resolves to somehow get them out of this mess.

This and the majority of what ensues would actually have made for a highly effective thriller. Writer/director Alexandre Aja gleefully milks all the conventions of suspense and although there's a superfluity of gore it's executed with plenty of élan. What's more the idea of a lesbian heroine who must demonstrate masculine resourcefulness to save the day is a provocative one.

Unfortunately it doesn't appear to have been enough for Aja and he resorts to the aforesaid EYTYKIW. Logic flies out the window and he deploys some rather lame and not inoffensive stereotyping in the process. Perhaps the catch came first and he wrote the story around it, but that doesn't make it any more satisfying.

And so that postmodern conceit, the cannibalisation of narrative convention, wins out over old-fashioned storytelling. I'm not averse, I'll gleefully embrace innovative cinema, but this was trite and silly.

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